(PG) ★★★★✩ Limited national release
(tbc) ★★★✩✩ Limited national release
THERE was a time when Asian films were never released on commercial cinema screens. Indeed, before 1951, when Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion at Venice and effectively introduced Japanese cinema to the West, they were hardly seen at all. Even then the perceived wisdom was that Western audiences wanted to see action films from Asia, so samurai movies were the order of the day, to be followed by martial arts films from Hong Kong.
There appeared to be a perception that Asian films with a contemporary setting, films about families, such as those made by Yasujiro Ozu, the master of the Japanese family film, were ‘‘ too Asian’’ for the rest of the world, so it’s interesting that in the recent Sight and Sound poll of international film critics and directors, the director’s poll was topped by Ozu’s sublime Tokyo Story (1953).
Many admirers of Japanese cinema believe that Hirokazu Koreeda is the natural heir to Ozu, citing films such as Nobody Knows (2003) and Still Walking (2008). The director’s latest, I Wish, is also very Ozu-like in that its main characters are a couple of precocious little boys of the kind Ozu featured in I was Born, But . . . (1932) and Good Morning (1959).
Until their parents divorced, Koichi (Koki Maeda) and his younger brother Ryu (Ohshiro Maeda) were inseparable. Now Koichi lives with his mother, who has gone back to live with her parents in a provincial town located close to an active volcano, while Ryu lives in the city with his cheerfully impoverished father, a would-be musician. As far as the parents are concerned, the marriage is over, but the brothers can’t accept the status quo and desperately want to be together again.
As they talk long-distance on their mobile phones it becomes clear that Ryu has the better deal. At least he’s in the city, not in some isolated backwater, and he seems to have more friends than his big brother, including some protective girls slightly older than he is.
For Koichi, then, a reunion is all the more urgent, and he seizes the chance when he hears a tall story that, if you are at the spot where two bullet trains pass by each other, your wish will come true. Accordingly, Koichi and Ryu plan to meet at the place where the trains pass, and persuade their friends to accompany them on a journey of which their parents would definitely disapprove.
Their story is told in a leisurely film that takes time to make various digressions from the main narrative — for example, exploring the world of Koichi’s grandfather and his elderly friends and the making of a particular kind of cake, and also the ambitions of Megumi (Kara Uchida), the oldest of Ryu’s friends, who wants to become an actress like her mother was before she gave it up to become a bartender.
Koreeda’s characters are all sympathetic. He doesn’t demonise the parents who have given their sons such distress — on the contrary, each of them clearly has a good reason for the decision they’ve taken to live apart. And the writer-director is very good on small details, such as the volcanic ash that is such a presence in the provincial town.
There appears to be a good deal of improvisation in the dialogue delivered by the children, and at times the film is edited (by the director) as though it were a documentary. In any event, I Wish is a delightful experience, surprisingly unsentimental given the theme, and an excellent example of the work of one of the better directors working in Japan today. STARRY Starry Night, an adaptation of a popular illustrated book by Taiwanese Jimmy Liao, is a lavish variation on a similar theme: the effect unhappy marriages have on children, though in this case the protagonists aren’t siblings. In fact, they’re much closer to the children featured in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, with which this film shares several elements.
Thirteen-year-old Mei (Josie Xu) adores her grandfather, a Disney-like character who lives in an isolated cottage in a forest and makes wooden toys. Life with her parents, who are always bickering and who eventually announce a divorce, is painful for the teenager, who fantasises that her toys literally come to life — a cue for much elaborate computergenerated work. She befriends another loner, Jay (Eric Lin), a new boy at her school who is bullied because he’s artistic, and, after Grand- father’s inevitable demise, the two children run off to the forest to find his cottage.
Director Tom Shu-Yu Lin has elaborated at great length on this essentially simple material and, though much of the film is visually very handsome, a lot of it is overdone in a peculiarly insistent way. There’s heavily symbolic reference to a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle on which Mei is constantly working and an epilogue set some years later in Paris unnecessarily underlines the whimsical, borderline supernatural, elements of the film.
At the core, there are two very good performances from the children, whose portrayal of adolescent awkwardness and frustration is spot on. As in Anderson’s film, scenes involving the runaways are delicately and on the whole quite beautifully handled. TAI Chi 0, by contrast, is the kind of Asian film Western audiences are supposed to embrace. Personally, I’ve seen enough martial arts movies to last a lifetime and this very lavish production serves only to reinforce that point of view. The approach is more jocular than usual, which is a welcome addition to the mix, but, despite an obviously big budget, director Stephen Fung and his team really haven’t come up with anything terribly new.
Yuan Xiaochao’s hero, Luchan, is considered to be a freak by his peers because he was born with a growth on his head which, when activated, turns him into a fighting machine. But he’s thought to be doomed to an early death unless he can master the art of tai chi (don’t ask!) so he travels to the mountain village of Chen to learn the art from locals who prove unwilling to teach him. Before long the village is invaded by a force led by a British officer and using a giant mechanical war machine, so of course the villagers are grateful for Luchan’s help in confronting the invader.
Yes, it’s the same old story, but the staging is undeniably spectacular and if you like this sort of thing it delivers the goods on a grand scale. The jokes include introducing some cast members with onscreen captions, so that the actor playing the hero’s father, when first seen, is accompanied not only by his name, Andy Lau, but a reminder that he directed the Infernal Affairs trilogy. And talking of trilogies, this was supposed to be the first of one but now, I gather, will be followed merely by a sequel, Tai Chi Hero, which is set to open on October 25. So if you like this one you won’t have long to wait; the trailer for Hero accompanies the endless end-credit crawl.
Koki Maeda in
Yuan Xiaochao in